After enjoying nearly a decade of steady growth in ridership, the Ithaca-Tompkins Regional Airport (ITH) is losing altitude in the passenger numbers game, and local officials worry that, over the long term, fewer travelers could trigger a downward spiral at ITH if airline carriers follow customers elsewhere.
The year 2011 proved to be a historic one at ITH with more than 121,733 outbound passengers, or “enplanements,” the airport’s highest tally ever. But ridership has tailed since then. By year-end 2013, enplanements at ITH had dropped 15 percent. More dismal are the airport’s 2014 numbers thus far. Through May, enplanements are down nearly 18 percent over this time last year, this as Tompkins begins rolling out expensive airport upgrades and continues its search to find a permanent replacement for Bob Nicholas, who retired as airport general manager on July 31 after 25 years.
What’s lacking in the current debate over possible reasons behind the ridership slump is clear consensus. Possibilities cited at the county level range from broader, more general causes, like a national economy still lumbering out of recovery or industry-wide changes among airlines, to airport specific issues like delays, high ticket costs and poor service quality.
Perplexed, county officials last year turned to a local consultant with experience in airline administration to be a liaison between the airport and airlines. Hired for $50,000, Ewan Barr’s tasks are manifold and complex, chief among them convincing Ithaca’s three profit-hungry airline companies that ITH is a viable market with plenty of paying customers, while simultaneously drumming up local support to get passengers in the seats. The end goal is to convince both sides—the airlines and prospective ITH customers—of what Barr and county officials are convinced: that Ithaca-Tompkins Regional Airport is a regional gem, with service and rates on par or better than other neighboring competitors.
But delivering that message begins with addressing the question at the root of ITH’s current ridership dilemma:
Why aren’t more Ithacans flying out of their own airport?
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About this time last year, Tompkins County and airport management were trying to put their finger on why 5,000 fewer passengers were boarding outbound Ithaca flights compared to the same time the previous year. That meant 5,000 fewer tickets sold and, as then general manager Bob Nicholas explained, fewer car rentals and parking lot fees. That all means lost revenue for an airport that contributes roughly $66 million in annual economic impact and more than 150 jobs to the region, according to Tompkins County administrators.
Officials were almost certain the passenger dip had something to do with the fallout from federal sequestration.
Automatic federal spending cuts in early 2013 had threatened to choke off funding to support air-traffic control towers nationwide. One-hundred and forty nine air-traffic control towers staffed with Federal Aviation Administration-contracted employees were scheduled for closure, including the tower at Ithaca-Tompkins Regional Airport. Already the target of a coming lawsuit from Tompkins and similarly affected communities with doomed air-traffic control towers, the Feds ultimately scrapped the cuts and restored funding after forced furloughs of FAA employees caused immediate flight delays nationwide. But local officials, like Tompkins County Administrator Joe Mareane, insist the news didn’t help local business. Potential ITH flyers were spooked by the news, officials said, and had taken their ticket fares elsewhere.
“I continue to think that was a jarring event,” Mareane said last month. “You can plot to the day when word about the control tower got out there. I think it affected behavior. People changed flight plans, and travelers said, ‘We have too much at stake in both safety and reliability. We were confident it wouldn’t be an issue, but I think in some ways it was concerning to people. I think, since then, it’s been hard to get behaviors to change back.”
Mareane’s assessment is one in a long list of possible contributors to the airport’s latest drop in a continuing downward trend. Psychological effects of federal spending cuts aside, 2013’s 15-percent decrease in enplanements only suggests other factors are at play here. And so far in 2014, there are nearly 7,500 fewer enplanements than there were at this time last year, a drop of nearly 18 percent, according to federal aviation statistics.
“We are a player in the world economy. Our success depends on that airport doing business all over the world,” Mareane said.
“We’re still in a decline cycle, which is why we’d brought in Ewan.”
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Thirty-five is Ewan Barr’s target. By his math, Barr estimates that an additional 35 passengers per day flying out of Ithaca would boost each airplane’s load capacity up into the 85 to 90 percent range. Right now, the percentage of filled seats on each plane hovers around 75 percent overall, he said.
Among his responsibilities, Barr and his 20-plus years working with national and regional airlines hope to convince ITH’s three commercial carriers to add more flights. With all planes operating at capacity, that’s an easier request to bring to the table, he said.
Currently, Ithaca-Tompkins Regional Airport offers flight service to three major hubs—Detroit, Newark, and Philadelphia—via its big three, Delta, US Airways, and United. In 2012 Ithaca offered about a dozen outbound flights on a daily basis, Nicholas said. Today, there are nine daily commercial flights. That retraction limits options for customers, who may choose to book their flights with airports that offer a variety of flight times.
Add to that the obvious external challenges of operating an airport in the northeastern United States—harsh weather, crowded air space—and reliability and flight timeliness can become tough challenges to overcome, Barr said.
“Our service, from every component you want to look at, we’re right on par with every other airport that serve those same markets,” Barr said. “Despite some stories you hear—I’m delayed and my flight got canceled—the chances of that happening to you are no greater than out of Syracuse, Elmira, Binghamton, or Scranton.”
Barr insists that Ithaca’s ticket prices and service reliability are competitive with neighboring airports in Elmira-Corning, Binghamton and Syracuse. This is partly true.
In terms of performance, planes flying out of Ithaca-Tompkins Regional Airport were on schedule about 87 percent of the time in 2013, based on Bureau of Transportation Statistics. On average, delay times were about 8 minutes at ITH, according to the data.
If you select a single destination and compare prices as a potential traveler would, you find a pattern that suggests a correlation between ticket price and passenger numbers per airport. A round-trip flight to San Francisco for one person for the weekend of Feb. 6, 2015 saw Syracuse charging $449, Elmira-Corning (ELM) at $413, ITH at $472, and Binghamton at $413.
Ithaca’s prices again come in higher with Feb. 6 service to both Orlando, Fla. and Chicago’s O’Hare airport. Flying to Orlando out of Ithaca would cost $422 versus $390 at Elmira-Corning, $388 at Binghamton and $295 at Syracuse. To O’Hare airport at Chicago, Ithaca’s $341 fare tops the other three: $314 at Elmira, $312 at Binghamton and $245 at Syracuse (The ticket price data are drawn from kayak.com.)
Wouldn’t dollar-conscious travelers in Ithaca be wise to consider the 40-minute drive to Horseheads if it meant more than a $80 discount?
According to Elmira-Corning Regional Airport Manager Ann Crook, this past May was the Horseheads airport’s best month in its history, with over 14,148 enplanements. Through June ELM has ushered off more than 75,000 boarding passengers, a pace that could put its all-time, year-end high of 153,000 enplanements in reach.
“It has been very good,” Crook said. “Two-thousand fourteen will probably be a record for us.”
Crook attributes the bump in numbers to two factors: Allegiant, a low-cost, no-frills airline, began service to Florida, and United opened up flights to Chicago out of ELM. All told, Elmira-Corning has about a dozen departing flights per day through its four commercial carriers, Allegiant, Delta, United and US Airways.
Crook said there’s no way to know with certainty if her airport is seeing an uptick in Ithaca passengers, though she said a recent survey is due out shortly that could provide some insight.
“There are ways you can tell,” she said. ELM sees “Ithaca taxi cabs, Cornell sports teams. Those kinds of things. We definitely think there are more Ithaca people coming down here, but this is a thumb-in-the-wind thing.”
Crook also noted that Elmira-Corning sees a lot of business travelers—particularly from Corning Inc.—who aren’t afraid to spend a little more to upgrade to a first-class seat. Of the five Delta flights to Detroit per day, four of those are on bigger jets with first-class cabins, she said.
Elsewhere, enplanements have gradually declined in the past decade at Greater Binghamton Airport (BGM). In 2004, it enplaned 133,000 passengers. In 2013, the three commercial carriers put aboard 95,000 (Officials at BGM did not respond to calls seeking comment for this story).
Syracuse Hancock International Airport (SYR) puts 2 million passengers on planes every year. This compares to more than 200,000 from Ithaca. Through their six commercial carriers—versus the three at Ithaca—SYR provides service to airports in New York City, Chicago, Boston, Atlanta, Washington D.C. and others. Their month-to-month enplanement numbers are either steady or growing, according to the airport’s Executive Director Christina Callahan. And Ithacans are contributing to that growth, she said.
“We see college and university transportation shuttles here,” she said, “and because we have conducted surveys where we’ve asked passengers their home zip code. We know they’re driving to Syracuse from Ithaca. Ithaca is a good service, but [SYR is] for others looking for more options, looking for direct service to destinations.”
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Local officials maintain their confidence in the quality of Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport, but underscoring the ridership dip is a real concern regarding viability. Money talks, and airlines will stick around if the business is there, stakeholders said. Extending the “buy local” ethos of the Ithaca area to the airport is part of that strategy. It starts with Ithaca’s two major institutions, Nicholas said.
“What we’re trying to improve is to impress on the companies, in particular Cornell University and Ithaca College—the people with big travel budgets—that it’s important for them to encourage employees to use the airport,” he said. “It’s not about keeping the airport solvent. It’s the local economy. It’s $66 million in economic activity.”
“We have something that’s important to airlines: people who travel all over the world,” County Administrator Mareane said. “Having that business base in such close proximity to the airport is an asset we can work with that others don’t have. When airlines look at Tompkins County, I think they look at us differently than other airports. Here, they look at passengers going to point A and B and then continue to C and D. Those are often the high-profit tickets for the airlines.”
Adding to the challenge to fill seats, Tompkins learned that it will have more to fill in the near future: airlines have announced they are retiring smaller aircraft, like the 37-seat and 56-seat propjets that fly out of Ithaca, in favor of larger, 70-seat planes. Nicholas said he hopes the size upgrade isn’t an opportunity for more cuts to airline service.
“We want to make sure when they replace them here, we get one-for-one and no further cuts,” he said.
“As we kind of peel back the onion and uncover different things and more challenges,” Barr said, “the challenge overall for all small airports is making sure air carriers continue to serve. In the next three to five years, major carriers will retire smaller airplanes, and we need ridership to continue to service a community of our size. It becomes, do we want the service? You have to support it.”
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Ithaca-Tompkins Regional Airport plays a major part in the county’s proposed four-year capital project, an outline of countywide infrastructure projects currently working its way through committees. The capital project, scheduled to begin next year, includes nearly $20 million in upgrades at the airport. A renewed runway ($4.4 million), additional taxiing space, and renovation ($8.25 million) and expansion of the airport’s terminal to better streamline TSA (Transportation Security Administration) space and passenger flow ($5.5 million) are among the scheduled projects, which are solely funded through federal, state and airport funds. No property taxes will be used to fund the airport projects.
Mareane noted that the proposed upgrades are not in response to lower ridership numbers or any other perceived issue at the airport. The upgrades are several years in the making, he said. As Barr put it, it’s not a “Field of Dreams” approach: Build it and passengers will come.
Changes are underway within Ithaca-Tompkins Regional Airport administration, too.
After 25 years as airport manager, Nicholas officially retired on July 31, relinquishing the captain’s seat to interim manager Michael Hall.
“I’ve spent 48 years in aviation,” Nicholas said. “It’s time to do something else.”
Over those 48 years, it hasn’t gotten any easier to be an airport administrator, Nicholas said. There are more challenges; there’s balancing airlines’ need for profits while ensuring passengers get quality service; there’s the stress that comes with federal decisions that negatively impact your airport.
“Airlines are tightening up with capacity and trying to get more people on fewer aircraft,” he said. “It’s not good if you’re trying to get an airport with good local service.”
“I started aviation with British Airways, and it was a different world then. Fares were controlled by the government, and aviation was based on customer service. That’s the furthest from how it’s based on now.”
Hall, a retired U.S. Air Force general who’s spent three decades in aviation and sat on the Tompkins County Air Service Board, will continue as interim manager until the county finds a permanent replacement. Tompkins began a nationwide search for the next airport manager in April and received 17 applications, Mareane said. A county working group tasked with leading the search identified a few strong finalists but were unable to make a confident choice.
“We set the bar very high,” Mareane said.
The work group will restart its search in the coming months, he said.
Hall, a former fighter pilot who learned to fly at the Ithaca airport, now oversees 35 county and contracted employees in his new role.
“I think I’ve seen the airport make tremendous strides,” the Ithaca native said. “Bob [Nicholas] built the infrastructure—and a good thing he did. We now have to lean forward and use the airport very effectively to keep air service.”
Ithaca Tompkins Regional is a jewel of an airport, Hall said, with excellent approaches and a facility built with the future in mind.
The next step will involve establishing good, working relationships with airlines, Hall said.
“We don’t want to be just a number someplace,” he said. “We want to be a name. There needs to be that partnership between provider and host.”
Given the ongoing ridership slump, together with a renewed focus on establishing good relations with airlines, the county administrator was asked about Nicholas’s retirement announcement and whether the airport’s current challenges are a matter of leadership.
“There are things going on that go beyond leadership,” Mareane said. Among the current challenges at the airport, “leadership is not one of them.”
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In March, the airport rolled out a new marketing campaign aimed to educate the public on the economic value of ITH. “Are you w(ITH) us?” includes a 30-second promotional video in which Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick highlights the benefits of using ITH. In another, Nicholas narrates airport services while an artist’s hand sketches the skylines of ITH’s three city hubs.
“There’s no anxiety attacks,” Mareane said. “We’re thinking clearly about direction, and we’re in contact with airlines. This is a roller-coaster industry.”
Two years ago, Tompkins County was touting record ridership numbers. That’s changed, he said.
“We’re at a different place,” he said. “It’s a reflection of a volatile industry.”